We want to believe that we are more than our jobs, but for most people we are only ever "a teacher," "a lawyer," "a doctor" and so forth. Taking that into consideration, writer and historian Studs Turkel conducted a series of interviews with working people throughout America in 1974, finding the human beings under the job descriptions and turning their stories into the book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book was adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso into a musical (with the title shortened to just the first word), which ran on Broadway for only 24 performances in 1978 with a cast of 17.
More than 30 years later, Working is back in New York for a limited run courtesy of Prospect Theater Company, with a largely rewritten book (still lifted from Turkel's interviews), two new songs, a shortened running time and a cast of just six.
And while few attendees of the production at 59E59 will have seen the original Broadway production, it seems hard to argue that this more scaled-down version is a more intimate and intense experience. By letting the smaller cast take on numerous roles, connections between different types of people and professions are made clearer. This is a show about real people (we hear the interviewees' voices in between scenes), and even after 40 years, the characters feel painfully human. Likewise, the revised script by director Gordon Greenberg feels very timely, especially the monologues about unemployment and inter-cultural relationships.
And the two new songs by Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda provide a decidedly 21st-century sound, offering a nice balance to the original score by Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. The different composers and lyricists created unique sounds for each career covered, and the rearranged songs and scenes create a nice flow of comedy, drama, country and classic Broadway.
Greenberg's direction lets us see the characters in three dimensions, without casting any judgment on their emotions or motives. In one scene, a prostitute (a clear-eyed and gritty Kenita R. Miller) talks about how she got into the life while a socialite (a luminous Donna Lynne Champlin) discusses the machinations of philanthropy. Neither is presented as in a negative light, but we see the similarities between the two women, both of whom ply money out of rich men and value financial stability over honesty.
The cast of six blends together terrifically for their group scenes, and each performer stands out as an individual for the monologues and solos. Miller and Champlin get some of the best moments throughout the evening, but high praise must go to Marie-France Arcilla for her world-weary millworker, Nehal Joshi for his energetic delivery man and put-upon phone operator, Joe Cassidy for his optimistic (and somewhat pitiable) retiree and Jay Armstrong Johnson for finding a range of emotions in several blue-collar characters.
With luck, Working will transfer to New World Stages or a space at Theater Row for a longer run. Especially given the current debates on minimum wage, unemployment, outsourcing and overall working conditions, a show like this can be a valuable conversation-starter, and a reflection of the wide range of people who contribute to the global community. Everyone plays their part, and everyone can connect with at least one character in this intimate musical.